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Ann Hironaka?s new research shows that civil wars are nearly three times longer than they were 60 years ago.

Ann Hironaka's new research shows that civil wars are nearly three times longer than they were 60 years ago.

Fighting words

Sociologist Ann Hironaka researches civil wars

May 22, 2007

Long before she ever made war one of her primary academic interests, Associate Professor Ann Hironaka was busy taking stands against it. As an undergraduate during the 1980s, she was active in a variety of peace related causes; she even served a stint at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, though she says she was enlisted mostly as a diligent copier and coffee fetcher, not as a policy analyst.

As Hironaka became interested in sociology, it might have made sense for her to leave war to the political scientists, who more commonly study the subject. But she was convinced that sociology would offer a unique perspective on conflict. As her new research demonstrates, her instinct was right.

From the beginning, Hironaka has been especially interested in the phenomenon of civil war. When she began her studies, she recalls, "There seemed to be a lot of civil wars going on in any given year, so I just assumed there were more civil wars breaking out than there were years ago."

But once she began digging through the actual data, Hironaka realized the reality was much more nuanced. In fact, the number of new civil wars each year hasn't changed much over the course of two centuries--what's changed is their length. During the first half of the 20th century, the average civil war lasted about a year and a half. By the second half, that average had nearly tripled.

A new kind of war

By way of context, Hironaka explains that the vast majority of civil wars are fought in developing countries, which tend to be in flux as political entities. They're what social scientists refer to as "weak states"--countries with very limited economic, organizational, and political strength. Unlike a strong state (the United States or France, for example), a weak state typically has a government that rebels can easily exploit. Since the rebels are likely to be just as weak as the government they overthrow, however, power may move back and forth for years--or even decades.

That process of exchanging power isn't something with which most Americans are familiar, Hironaka notes. "Americans see civil wars through the lens of Western history," she says. "We assume a prototypical war is like one of the French civil wars--there are rebels and there is the government, and whoever gets Paris takes over and that's it. It's decisive and short. But that's not how they work in the developing world."

"In the 19th century, great powers agreed where they were going to intervene, and they crushed movements," Hironaka says. "That doesn't mean we should encourage such actions, but it is one way to end a war."

In Chad, for example, which "can't even provide its people with food, clean water, and health care," civil war has raged for nine years, Hironaka observes. "It doesn't make sense that they can afford to have a costly civil war that goes on for so long," she says. The missing piece, she explains, is intervention by other countries.

"The international system plays a much more important role in states and their activities than it used to," Hironaka says. According to her data, 70 percent of civil wars involve intervention on one or both sides. In the case of Chad's ongoing conflict, France and Libya have helped fund the opposing groups, pouring resources into the war to achieve their own foreign policy ends. As with many other civil wars, support from partisan international sources has lengthened Chad's conflict.

While such intervention isn't new to civil wars, its impact has changed over time, particularly since World War II, Hironaka says. Years ago, intervention tended to be cooperative. "In the 19th century, great powers agreed where they were going to intervene, and they crushed movements," Hironaka says. "That doesn't mean we should encourage such actions, but it is one way to end a war."

The intersection of academia and Iraq

Hironaka is careful not to adopt a moral or political stance on these changes, but she does believe it's important to understand why they're happening. "As a scholar, I believe the first step is to correctly diagnose the problem," she says.

As the newspaper stories about Iraq have continued to pile up, Hironaka's research has become even more relevant than she initially imagined. "I feel like I can see my academic arguments unfolding in real time," she says. "Iraq had a brutal, repressive regime, but it was also a strong state. The United States created a weak state out of a strong state by taking out the central government, and now it's realizing how difficult it is to rebuild a strong state." Civil war, rare under Saddam Hussein's rule, now has the potential to last for years, she adds.

Although prospects for Iraq's near future may seem bleak, Hironaka points out that weak states can be built into strong states over time.

"The American state was disorganized for many years before becoming a strong state, and European states took centuries to develop stable organizational structures," she says. "Strong states don't just naturally occur."

As for the role of academia in the debate about Iraq, Hironaka says it's important for academics to "question the basic assumptions of what a state is, what a war is, and what wars are about--instead of relying on intuitive assumptions about these things. By doing that, I think we can gain an understanding of wars that will help lead to better policy."

Ann Hironaka's findings about civil war are detailed in her new book, Neverending Wars: The International Community, Weak States, and the Perpetuation of Civil War.

Republished from Facets 2007, a publication by the Department of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts